Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Alex, Approximately
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: April 2017

SUMMARY

Bailey Rydell’s crush is a fellow classic film buff who goes by the name of Alex online.  Then Bailey moves across the country to Alex’s California hometown.  But Bailey is an evader.  Hesitant to tell Alex that she could be living down the street, Bailey determines to try to find Alex herself first.  But then Porter happens.  Porter is annoying.  But also incredibly handsome.  And maybe a little funny.  Soon Bailey finds herself falling and she wonders if this is fair to Alex.  What she doesn’t know is that Porter and Alex are the same person.

Review

I initially picked up this book because I had heard that it is a retelling of The Shop Around the Corner.  However, the story stands on its own.  Led by a charming protagonist who loves to evade people (and sometimes) problems, it offers a romance that feels realistic but is also disarmingly sweet.  I do not  usually read contemporary YA, but this one stole my heart.

Although the plot summary focuses on the conflict between Bailey’s interest in Alex and her new crush on Porter, the book itself spends most of the time chronicling Bailey and Porter’s falling in love.  Though they love to argue, their chemistry is clear and readers will cheer them on from the start, knowing that the two are destined to be together.  Alex fades into the background as Bailey becomes more invested in the boy she knows in real life.  And Alex, of course, does not seem to mind.  After all, he has a real life romance of his own!

The relationships depicted feel very real and very contemporary.  Most of Porter’s flirtations are not very cute or sweet, but rather indications that he finds Bailey physically attractive and wants to get physical with her.  And that’s pretty much what happens.  The two get handsy and hop into the back of a van together before even determining what they mean to each other or what their relationship status is.  Older readers may find this odd and perhaps alarming, but it’s hard to deny that this is what dating looks like now for many people.  The teen crowd for whom it is intended may largely not bat an eye.

Bennett balances the pick-up lines with some sweet gestures by Porter, which at times make this book feel more like a woman’s fantasy than anything else.  Porter does sweeping romantic gestures.  He opens up to Bailey and is emotionally sensitive.  He is very careful about making sure Bailey is comfortable and asking for consent.  Frankly, if you think about it too hard, it feels a little too good to  be true.  I mean, the guy is even physically ripped and goes around beating up other dudes to defend his girl’s honor or something.  Fantasy for sure.

However, the relationship between Bailey and Porter is sensitively drawn.  Both have baggage, but both are learning to grow up and to open up.  In many ways, they help to bring out the best in each other. Initially I read this book for the classic film references.  I kept on reading because I loved Bailey and I wanted her to find happiness.

4 stars

Saints by Gene Luen Yang

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Saints
Series:  Boxers and Saints #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 2013

SUMMARY

Abused by her family, a young peasant girl flees her village and becomes a Christian convert.  Now named Vibiana, she struggles to understand her calling in light of the visions she sees of Joan of Arc. When the Boxer Rebellion arrives at the gates, Vibiana will have to decide how strongly she believes in the faith she has adopted.

Review

Drawn mostly in sepia tones, Saints is a more reflective volume than its longer predecessor, Boxers.  In a parallel story, it follows a girl from Bao’s village as she leaves her unloving family and becomes a Christian convert–initially because she thinks Christians are “foreign devils” and that she is assuming the demon nature her family has ascribed to her.  As the story progresses and the Boxer Rebellion gains in intensity, however, Vibiana must choose if she really values the faith she has been living.

Saints is a thought-provoking story, though its use of humor might obscure it reflectiveness for some readers.  Vibiana does not convert out of any spiritual or intellectual conviction, and her growth seems from the outside a little rocky.  She has a habit of asking questions that annoy some of the adults (though others appreciate her thirst for truth and knowledge) and she sometimes seems a little flippant about the faith, to the the despair of the priest who burns himself with an intensity others find uncomfortable.  The wide range of Christians depicted, however, ultimately suggests that there is room for all in the faith as they struggle on trying to find their way and trying to become better.

Also intriguing are the visions of Joan of Arc, a figure Vibiana does not recognize and whose unfolding story intrigues her as she gets to live it.  Joan inspires Vibiana with a desire to be like her by picking up a sword and fighting for her country.  Juxtaposed with Bao’s own visions of the opera gods and his seeming ability to transform into them on the battlefield,  Joan appears enigmatic.  Is she real?  Is Vibiana really seeing her?  Ultimately,  Vibiana must decipher for herself the message Joan brings and what that means for her own future.

Together, Boxers and Saints form a thoughtful look at the Boxer Rebellion, the motivations that drive people to commit acts of violence or acts of great sacrifice, and the ways in which war can distort one’s perception of what is right and what is wrong.

4 stars

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

dramaINFORMATION

Goodreads: Drama
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: 2012

SUMMARY

Callie is so excited to be the set designer for her middle school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi.  But now she’s having trouble getting the cannon to fire and, even worse, it seems like half the cast is involved in drama over dating.  Can the show go on?

REVIEW

I enjoyed Drama mainly for its quirky protagonist and its lovable cast of characters.  The drama of Drama, however?  Not so much.  Raina Telgemeir crams in so many crossed loves that the book feels more like a soap opera than the story of a seventh grader’s involvement in school theatre.  In some cases, less really is more.

YA has become somewhat infamous for love triangles, but here we have what seems to be a love pentagon. Maybe even a hexagon.   It’s hard to keep track of who likes whom because none of them apparently know what their feelings are, either.  The kids are all kissing and dating each other in what almost seemed to be some sort of incestuous muddle as half the characters seem to be semi-involved with each other throughout the course of the book.  But isn’t it normally a bit of a taboo to kiss someone right after they’ve broken up with someone else, or to start dating someone the week after a break-up?  Isn’t there usually some sort of unspoken rule about that?  I kept waiting for a character to get upset about their previous girlfriend moving on so fast, or finding out that they were a rebound, but generally no one cared.

Aside from the weird romantic dynamics, however, the story is engaging.  I loved seeing someone write about the people who usually stay behind the scenes during a show.  Their enthusiasm for tech and theatre is contagious, and the characters themselves are quite endearing.  I wanted to join Callie’s circle of friends because they always seem like they’re having a good time.  It’s a shame the plot didn’t quite live up to the characters.

3 starsKrysta 64

Bayou Vol. 1 by Jeremy Love

bayou-1INFORMATION

Goodreads: Bayou
Series:  Bayou #1
Source: Gift
Published: 2009

SUMMARY

The daughter of a sharecropper, Lee knows that times are tough and nothing good ever happens in the bayou.  Then Lee’s white friend Lily goes missing and Lee’s father Calvin is arrested for kidnapping.  There’s no evidence against Calvin, but Lee knows that will not save him from being lynched.  She also knows where Lily really is–she’s been taken by the bayou.  Determined to find Lily and save her father, Lee will enter a magical world full of monsters–some of them all too familiar.

Review

Set in Depression-era Mississippi, Bayou tells the story of the Jim Crow South through magical realism.  Lee Wagstaff lives by the bayou, where nothing good ever happens–indeed, she just had to recover the body of a Black boy, lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman.  And even though she considers herself friends with the daughter of the woman who owns the land her daddy works, race relations are fraught and life precarious.  When her friend Lily goes missing, her daddy is carted off to jail and Lee understands it’s only a matter of time before he’s dead.  So what’s a girl to do but grit her teeth and head into the bayou–the bayou where she saw a  monster gobble Lily whole.

Lee’s resilience and determination are inspiring, and bring some light to what is otherwise often a very dark book.  Much like the bayou, the book looks and feels magical, but there is also a dangerous current underneath.  It can be difficult to tell who is friend and who is foe.  And the world of the bayou begins to look strikingly like the world Lee left behind.  Those with power oppress those without, and might too often makes right.  No wonder Lee is so angry, so loud.  She understands she lives in an unfair world, and she wants to do something about it.

Though the protagonist is a child, this is no children’s story.  It’s full of violence, often graphic, and Jeremy Love does not want you to look away.  The graphic novel  medium allows him to shed light on the conditions of the Jim Crow South.   Lee and her father cannot escape the violence, the brutality, the degradation.  Readers, Love suggests, should not be able to try to escape to a more comfortable place either, but rather must engage with America’s bloody past.

Krysta 645 stars

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

strange the dreamer

Information

Goodreads: Strange the Dreamer
Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
Source: Library
Published: April 2017

Official Summary

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Review

I really enjoyed the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, so I was stoked to hear about Strange the Dreamer.  But not stoked enough to buy the book; I waited until it was available at my library, so I’ve just read the novel recently.  My overall feelings: It’s beautiful and imaginative and skillfully celebrates both book knowledge and field work, but it has a couple flaws.

First, the pacing is rather slow.  Taylor may be known for her prose and world building, but I think it’s possible to give such things slightly too much reign.  In Strange the Dreamer, it takes her 200 pages (no exaggeration; I checked) to introduce the main point of the novel.  Sure, she introduces the world and the characters, but she does that thing where authors withhold information; readers are not told for 200 pages who one of the main characters is, what she’s doing, or how her life is going to intersect with the other protagonist’s.  I like long books, but I don’t like this.  I think Taylor could have tightened things up.

Second, the romance is not compelling.  I love the two protagonists individually, but together…meh.  I don’t want to say much that spoils the plot, but their relationship felt too much to me like something that arose out of circumstances rather than something I really believed in.  Of course, all relationships depend on circumstances…living near someone, for example, but I left the book with too much doubt that these two would be together if things had been different in small ways.  When I read about romance, I want to feel the chemistry.

The rest of the book was stellar, however.  As I’ve mentioned, the world building is phenomenal.  Taylor really delves into the myth and lore and of her world and how it travels and evolved.  I also love that she combines love of research and book knowledge with a love of adventure and getting out and doing things.  For a while I thought she was going to pick one over the other and imply that, ultimately, spending your lives with texts is not as fulfilling as going out into world, but she nicely sets out the value of both.

Strange the Dreamer is thoughtful and imaginative, stocked with a varied set of complex characters–dreamers, doers, idealists, pragmatists.  I enjoyed entering this world.  However, I didn’t love the story quite enough that I’m truly interested in sequel, particularly as it is set up at the end of book one.  Perhaps I’ll get to it eventually, but it won’t be a priority for me at time of publication.

4 starsBriana

Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Boxers
Series:  Boxers and Saints #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2013

SUMMARY

Inspired by the martial abilities of a man dedicated to fighting foreign influences in China, a young peasant boy named Bao learns to call upon the powers of the gods.  At the head of an army devoted to bringing justice to the people and stopping the spread of the Christian missionaries, Bao determines to bring unity to China.   But will he have to abandon his principles in order to achieve victory?

Review

In the first volume of his Boxers and Saints set, Gene Luen Yang tells the story of a peasant boy who joins the Sons of the Righteous and Harmonious First as they vow to rid China of foreign influences, including the Christian missionaries and Chinese converts, whom they call “secondary devils.”  Bao and his followers learn the secrets of kung fu so they can take on the appearances and abilities of the Chinese gods.  Bao believes that it is his destiny to restore and unify China.

Yang explores the motivations behind the Boxer Rebellion, making Bao and his followers sympathetic even as their mission transforms from protecting the people of China to waging outright war on the “foreign devils.”  Bao begins with a firm set of principles to guide him, dedicating himself to defending the weak and abjuring the temptations of the flesh.  He really believes that he is doing divine work and the illustrations showing him and his followers taking on the personas of the gods complicate the narrative.  Is Bao delusional?  Or is something supernatural really occurring?  These questions become more pertinent as Bao finds himself needing to abandon his core values if he is to achieve victory.

Though the illustrations are simple, the graphics are often brutal.  Yang does not shy away from depicting the horror of violence, the rage that drives individuals to bloody deeds, or the sacrifices of morality that war seems to necessitate.  The result is a thought-provoking look at the Boxer Rebellion as seen through the eyes of one of the Boxers.  Yang completes his treatment of the rebellion in the companion novel, Saints, which follows a Chinese girl as she converts to Christianity, and shows some of the same events from a different perspective.  A fascinating look at a part of history not many readers may be familiar with.

4 stars

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker

nat-turnerINFORMATION

Goodreads: Nat Turner
Series:  None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2006

SUMMARY

Baker combines his wordless graphic novel with excerpts from Nat Turner’s confessions to telll story of the 1831 slave uprising in Southampton County, Virginia.

Review

Kyle Baker sheds light on an overlooked portion of American history, the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nate Turner, which resulted in the deaths of dozens as a group of slaves and free Black individuals went from plantation to plantation killing the white inhabitants.  Turner’s legacy has been controversial, with some viewing him as a hero and others condemning his violent methods.  His impact, however, was immediate, as his actions caused swift revenge upon the black community but also inspired Black Americans, who admired his spirit of resistance.  Baker’s graphic novel captures the intensity and the mystery of this somewhat forgotten historical figure.

Baker’s contribution to the novel is wordless, suggesting that the violence experienced by slaves in America  is, in fact, beyond words.  The beatings, the separations, the fear must all be experienced visually, and it almost feels sometimes as if you the viewer must be complicit, as you stand by in deafening silence, watching brutality occur.  Baker pairs the images with excerpts from Turner’s confessions.  The stark account of his past and the uprising contrasts sharply with the panels, again suggesting that some things really cannot be spoken of.

Nat Turner is a powerful book, one that will likely make readers feel uncomfortable as they confront the violence of slavery.  Baker provides some end content  that reinforces the story, including an image of the crowded conditions in slave ships, further reading, and discussion questions for classes.  The material reminds readers that this is all very real, something they must engage with.

4 starsKrysta 64